Dead Space 3 Co-op: Are Two Heads Really Better Than One?

We explore the first four acts of Dead Space 3, and how adding another player does--or doesn't--affect the course of the adventure.

Electronic Arts recently came to San Francisco to show off the first four acts of Dead Space 3, so we eagerly jumped at the chance to play the upcoming action-horror game, both alone and with another player cooperatively. The portion we played represents only about an eighth of the game--hardly a fair representation of the whole experience. Nevertheless, it was hard not to notice the disparity between the groundbreaking co-op play described in EA's opening speech, and the demo's actual gameplay. Yet the playable chapters were thankfully grounded in the series' roots--a pleasant surprise considering the icy, cooperative, bro-talking demonstration on display at E3 2012.

At E3, fans were notably upset at the prospects of a cooperative-focused shooter that reminded them more of Lost Planet than it did of Dead Space or even Dead Space 2. Dead Space 3 is further following the path to full-on action--yet the opening chapters retain some of the atmospheric dread that made the original so beloved, so if you were worried that Dead Space was yearning to become Gears of War, there is still hope.

Yet let it be said: Dead Space 3 gets down to the action before it gets down to the suspense. As returning hero Isaac Clarke, your not-so-successful attempt at privacy on a lunar colony is disrupted by the Sovereign Colonies Armed Forces--that is, the SCAF. Isaac seems none too interested in their ongoing quest to destroy the powerful alien artifacts known as The Markers--at least, not until they tell him that Ellie Langford is involved in the project. She's missing in action, which is enough to get a clearly distraught Isaac back into the fray.

Necromorphs are hardly Isaac's first priority, however: Unitologist cultists are the greater initial threat, and the escape from the colony gets you right into the action, which culminates in a shootout on a moving locomotive. There were moments of pure atmosphere--televised cultist propaganda, a surprise activation of an animatronic figure--but this was action-game bravado, albeit good action-game bravado. Once on The Eudora, SCAF private Robert Norton's ship, Isaac and companions are off to seek Ellie and her crew, though it isn't long before the ship runs into danger, and you experience an on-rails zero-grav flight sequence (an effective set piece, certainly) before landing on the derelict Roanoke space station.

It's here that Dead Space 3 begins to feel like a Dead Space game. After a weaponcrafting tutorial, you navigate the eerie corridors of the Roanoke, shooting the limbs off lanky necromorphs, using kinesis to open doors and pull levers, and using stasis to slow the grotesque creeps to a more manageable pace. None of it is particularly frightening: the attempted scares come more or less when expected. The pulse can pound however, at least when trying to solve a generator puzzle while attacked by oncoming mutated freaks. There wasn't much to the weaponcrafting system at this stage, but the interface spoke to numerous possibilities of attachments and modifications.

Dead Space 3 introduces a new character, Sergeant John Carver, who functions as Isaac's co-op partner when two people play the campaign. On your own, an AI-controlled John doesn't tail you--only with another real player in the mix do you have a buddy at your side. EA and Visceral seem proud of their co-op play, and described how John and Isaac will experience different types of horrors from each other as they face dementia. The playable demonstration, however, didn't reflect these ambitions. There were great subtle touches that differed when adding another player to the mix: dialogue and cutscene tweaks, for instance, and adjustments to puzzle design. The difficulty level, too, was clearly changed to accommodate a duo. On the whole, however, adding an additional player was underwhelming: it was two people playing the same game together, and occasionally getting in the way of each other when traveling through tight corridors and descending ladders.

On the other hand, it wasn't until the end of the fourth act when Dead Space 3 began to reference Isaac's troubled past and his eerie ongoing connection to the Markers. By the time the pair make it to the icy planet Tau Volantis, there could be fascinating co-op thrills in store, but it was hard not to see Dead Space 3's opening hours as a missed opportunity to show how scares don't have to be sacrificed just because you share the experience. These 4 acts, however, are two people playing an action game together.

Dead Space 3 is reportedly a long game, however, so the John Carver experience could transform into a very different one from the Isaac Clarke experience. We'll have a full review for you in the coming weeks, which will closely evaluate both the solo and co-op angles. For now, it seems that Dead Space 3 fans have a lot to look forward to--but are still right to be cautious of promises still yet to be proven.

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